Columbo: The Most Crucial Game (TV)
First broadcast November 5, 1972
Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by The Greenhouse Jungle
Followed by Dagger of the Mind
Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jeremy Kagan
Key Guest Cast
Our victim is played by Dean Stockwell who had been a child star in the late 40s. At the time he may have been best known to crime fans for his performance as Judd Steiner (based on Leopold) in Compulsion. He went on to have a long career and modern viewers may remember him best from Quantum Leap or the revival of Battlestar Galactica.
Valerie Harper makes a small but memorable appearance here and would have been familiar to viewers as Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Often very entertaining, sadly issues with the plotting meant I found it disappointing as a mystery.
It is game day for the Los Angeles Rockets football team and general manager Paul Hanlon appears in a feisty mood. Shortly before the game he calls the coach, chewing him out, and then he calls the team’s playboy owner to remind him that they will be flying to Canada that night to meet with the owners of a hockey franchise he thinks they should acquire.
As the game kicks off, Hanlon dismisses the attendant in his box and dons a disguise, heading out to commit murder. His plan is to make it appear he was in the stadium the whole time, using a radio to keep track of developments in the game. Hanlon stages the murder to appear to be an accidental drowning but unfortunately Columbo is assigned to the case and he is soon on the killer’s trail.
Today’s episode is a bit of a landmark for the series as it was the first episode to feature an actor reappearing on the show to play a killer for a second time. This was one of the aspects of the series that always puzzled me before I started to watch – why did the show reuse killers when there was such a wealth of acting talent to choose from? Was it a level of comfort with the actor or an issue of availability? How I wish that there were DVD extras with these to explain how those decisions were made…
Robert Culp makes his return having previously been the murderer in Death Lends A Hand – a story that I felt fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Would I like his second outing more?
Well, that’s actually quite hard to answer. Let’s start with Culp’s own performance. While Brimmer was quite aloof, Hanlon is fiery and combative. That worked well here, leading to several memorable exchanges with Columbo as his frustrations grow and some “tells” start to show in his behavior.
Culp sports a rather bushy moustache that makes him look almost comical at points, particularly during a sequence in which he dons a disguise. Fortunately Culp plays the whole thing straight, managing to retain his dignity while looking pretty silly and obviously is highly competent, making him a pretty interesting adversary for Columbo. In short, while I may not understand the practice of bringing back killers on principle, this particular piece of casting is really good and Culp delivers an even better performance this second time around.
I think the actual mechanism used to commit the murder is really clever (and so I have no wish to spoil it). It is about as tidy a method as it is possible to imagine and the plan is really impressively worked, being shot to appear quick and brutal. Sometimes with these stories you wonder if a person could really be killed so easily – here it makes perfect sense.
Columbo will be presented with a crime scene that is pretty much perfect. To all appearances this was an accidental death and there is very little evidence to disagree with that reading.
Being Columbo however he does find something – a patch of regular water – but honestly, I just don’t buy that being enough to have him thinking murder. For starters I don’t think that puddle should still be there by the time Columbo arrives in the type of weather we see but even if it is, this is a really weak thing to hook the case on.
Though I think that Columbo’s reasons for suspecting murder are weak, the investigation itself is very enjoyable. The central problem of the episode is the idea that Hanlon has an unbreakable alibi. As an example of that type of problem, the story largely delivers. While Hanlon’s plan is very cleverly worked, there are a couple of things that give Columbo enough room to imagine how he could have done it.
The problem though is that at no point are we ever asked why Hanlon commits this murder. Now I will be the first to say that the viewer doesn’t always need to know every aspect of a case for it to be satisfying. In fact I think it can sometimes be interesting for the viewer to infer a motive but here that is rather messy. There are a number of possible explanations but none fully convince.
Is it because the owner doesn’t care about the fate of the sports empire? Well, why would he want to run the risk that a new owner might dismiss him? Was he in danger of being exposed for manipulating the owner? Possibly, but it seems clear that the person keenest to do that has little standing with the family any more. Is he in love with Wagner’s wife and killing him in the hopes of winning her? Maybe, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in him.
I don’t know if this is a case of a motive having been written and then cut for time (or some other reason) or if there was never any motive specified at all but I found its absence really distracting. Columbo is almost always looking for the motive first as his hook into a character – just think back to Étude in Black for a good example of this where he is floundering until he gets that information. It bothers me that when he makes his accusation he doesn’t even make a suggestion as to why he killed Wagner.
Without having a motive, Columbo’s treatment of Hanlon – a man who seems to have a cast iron alibi – starts to feel like unwarranted harassment. He has absolutely no reason to focus in on him at the point at which he does and, make no mistake, Columbo is clearly looking at him as a suspect from the moment he arrives at the stadium. We typically give him some latitude for this because we know he will be right and because of the type of person he is interested in but Hanlon appears and acts for most of the story as someone acting in the interests of Wagner’s widow.
This was not the only aspect of Columbo’s behavior I found questionable. I was also baffled by the choice to have him appear utterly distracted at the crime scene, listening to the game rather than looking at the body. I get that this helps establish him as a fan but it also makes his inattention feel more a genuine part of his character than an affectation, designed to throw the killer off. I don’t know that I love that interpretation of the character.
Still, Falk’s performance throughout the episode as a whole is really quite wonderful. Take for instance the wonderful way he fixates on wanting a replacement pair of shoes for instance which he apparently ad-libbed when he first meets Walter Cannell. It’s a really funny moment that speaks to his character and methods while it also really disconcerts the person he is talking with.
I also have to really praise the look of the episode. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is striking. It’s not particularly flashy but it tells the story very effectively, giving a strong sense of movement which suits this story well. It is not just the big moments but the little ones, using sound as effectively as the visuals – an example of that would be the child’s voice calling after the ice cream truck Hanlon is driving when he doesn’t stop in the neighborhood.
These aspects of the production, along with Culp’s performance, make it an often very entertaining episode to watch. The interactions between Falk and Culp are quite intense and I think the professional sports setting is used well. There are a lot of elements here that could well have led to this story being a classic.
Unfortunately what holds it back are some basic problems with the setup. Columbo’s decision to think Hanlon a murderer feels incredibly arbitrary, without a foundation of any clear (or even suggestive) evidence. Knowledge that Hanlon is guilty may allow viewers to overlook Columbo’s behavior here but I never really felt comfortable with it and it soured the episode for me as a result.